The renowned designer, recently recovered from Gucci, talks about his liberal democratic childhood in Texas, his ranch in New Mexico, his new career in film, and his optimism about America’s future. Creative Director Peter Halley and Tom Ford discussed current events at Ford’s home in Santa Fe.
PETER: Until this year, you were living full-time in Paris and London. What was your sense of the response to the Bush administration in Europe?
TOM: The U.S. used to be perceived as the moral leader of the world, and we have absolutely lost that. I think we appear as the most morally corrupt country on the planet. It is sad. When I go through passport control from London to Paris, I put my American passport down, and people look at me very differently than they did before. The U.S. used to be seen as the land where you could find freedom, and create a new life for yourself, whatever your background.
PETER: My friends in Europe talk to me about the election in an almost imploring tone, as if to say, “You people are the only ones who can change this.”
TOM: It’s true! Michael Moore’s film has done a wonderful bit of PR for us all over the world. It has reminded people that not all Americans are warmongers who back the current administration. We do have a conscience.
PETER: A lot of people are saying that this election is an emergency.
TOM: It is. I’m a Texas resident, so my vote will be cast in a red state. I just hope there are a lot more people like me voting in Texas than we hear about.
PETER: There’s actually a long tradition of enlightened liberalism in Texas. Until the ’80s, a Democrat held every elected statewide office. Were your parents also native to Texas?
TOM: My family’s been there since the 1830s. My mother was always very political and very much a Democrat.
PETER: It’s funny — the Bushes are a bunch of Connecticut Yankees, and yet the President insists that he’s a true Texan.
TOM: [laughs] He does. But Bush has embraced the stereotypical good-ole-boy side of Texas, which can be racist, narrow-minded, and self-serving. Remember also that Texas was settled by pioneers. It was its own country at one point, and in a way it still is. There are a lot of wonderful people in Texas, people who have a social, political, and environmental conscience.
PETER: You’re a complicated guy. You seemed to be very much at home living in London and Paris. But you’re from Texas, and you also seem perfectly happy out on your ranch near Santa Fe.
TOM: The two experiences make each other possible. From the time we’re born until we die, we’re kept busy with artificial stuff that isn’t important. Being able to escape makes it possible for me to deal with popular culture. I get some of my best work done at the ranch. When I’m in town, I sit in front of my computer, connected to the world. I need to go away in order to think.
PETER: Have you owned the ranch for awhile?
TOM: Yeah. We’re also breaking ground this week on an amazing house out there designed by Tadao Ando. There are cattle, horses, a vineyard, an orchard, and a movie set, believe it or not. It’s been used for a lot of things — The Missing, All the Pretty Horses. It’s a half-hour drive from the gate to the house. Sometimes I go out there for days and I just don’t leave.
PETER: And you like LA too.
TOM: I love LA. LA is my American city. For the next few years I’ll spend half the year in London and half the year in LA and Santa Fe. I think of LA as my American urban experience, London as my European urban experience, and Santa Fe as my country escape.
PETER: You’re now focused on your new career as a filmmaker.
TOM: I am. I’ve been reading every script I can get my hands on, so I can come out of the summer with a couple of projects that I’m ready to start. And I’m actually writing something, which will probably be terrible. [laughs] I’m also negotiating to buy the rights to something at the moment.
PETER: That’s exciting. Are you assembling a team in LA?
TOM: I have great agents at CAA who’ve been enormously helpful. I’ve opened a temporary office in LA and hired an LA-based assistant. Once I have a script that I’m ready to work on, I’ll assemble a full team.
PETER: There are so many parallels between fashion and film. Fashion, like film, has a lot of stories embedded in it.
TOM: The two mediums are very related. What I did as a fashion designer for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent was to create a character and then costume that character throughout her life.
PETER: Every ad campaign is like a mini-movie.
TOM: As is every fashion show. You’re manipulating your audience in a somewhat cinematic way. Both film and fashion are businesses where the audience doesn’t feel or see the work that goes on behind the scenes. They’re fa‚ade businesses.
PETER: This fall Rizzoli will publish a big book, a retrospective of your whole career at Gucci. In the interview in the book, you characterize yourself as a commercially viable designer. Will that apply to your work as a director as well?
TOM: It will. However, my first goal as a filmmaker is to have something to say. As a fashion designer, I knew what I was about. Recently I’ve been asking myself, “Why does the world need to see one of my movies? What is my message?” The most important thing is to discover that — otherwise, who cares? It’s just fluff.
PETER: It sounds like your transition into film-making is going very well.
TOM: I worry about, consider, and question everything that I’m doing. But when I put my mind to something I can really focus on it.
PETER: That is a quality that helped make you so successful at Gucci. Where do you think your drive and vision come from?
TOM: I think we’re born with these things, I really do. Artists, like yourself, are born with a need to express that’s just innate. As a fashion designer, I was always aware that I was not an artist, because I was creating something that was made to be sold, marketed, used, and ultimately discarded. True artists — and I do think there are some fashion-designer artists — create because they can’t do anything but create. There is no purpose to their work other than expression.
PETER: In your new book you thank your parents.
I wondered if your confidence that you can do whatever you set your mind to came from them.
TOM: Of course it did. At every turn, they said, “You want to be an architect? If that is what you have to do, go do it.” If my parents had discouraged me, I would have turned out very differently. They raised me in an open-minded, liberal environment. That had a lot to do with who I am today.
PETER: As the head of Gucci and Saint Laurent, you created images and advertising. You understood how to use the power of mass media. How do you rate the Bush administration’s ability to influence and manipulate the media?
TOM: Despite their great success in that area, I still think that George Bush has never learned to speak in public. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have handicapped him. I have a very hard time watching the man speak because he gives the impression that he doesn’t know what to say when he’s unscripted. Even when he is scripted, you feel that he sometimes doesn’t understand the words that he’s saying. But for some reason the American media seems to be in favor of the Bush administration. When you watch the news in Europe, you get a different take on things. When you watch the news here, it’s very watered-down. No one in the U.S. seems willing to slap this administration on the wrist.
PETER: I have the impression that the norm now-adays, for both television and newspaper reporting, is to present both sides of the story, but not to offer insight into which side is presenting the truth. To me, that’s a nightmare. But it all takes place against the background of September 11th.
TOM: It does. September 11th was a moment when America had the sympathy of the world. We’ve absolutely squandered and misused it. There’s a certain wag the dog element to this presidency. Most recently this administration has tried to drum up the gay marriage issue to divert attention from all the things that have been going wrong. I was very happy to see that the proposed constitutional amendment was defeated.
PETER: Why do you think that it didn’t gain momentum?
TOM: Most everyone now personally knows someone who is openly homosexual. Over the last twenty or thirty years, which in the scheme of things is fast, we’ve become comfortable as a society with homosexuality. Thanks to all the increased communication that television, film, and the internet have created, even people in small towns in Middle America are exposed to the same things as people in urban areas. That gives me great hope for the future.
PETER: Could that eventually create a more centrist American political climate?
TOM: Yes. And it’s not just gay issues. If you live in a small town, or a place where everyone is more or less the same, it’s easy to dislike anyone you don’t know. But the more information you have, the more comfortable you are with the broad range of human experience, the more you start to see the human side of things.
PETER: You no longer see people who are different from you as the other tribe.
TOM: Right, you just see them as people.
PETER: What are your thoughts on John Kerry?
TOM: I like him a lot. I was on a committee to raise money for him in the U.K. I heard him speak in Los Angeles, and I was very impressed with him. I like the fact that he’s been politically active from a very young age — this isn’t something that just happened. Let’s remember that George Bush is relatively new to the political game. I mean, he owned a baseball team just a few years before he became President. I like the fact that, after Kerry left Vietnam, he came back and led the veterans’ opposition to the war. I like that he has experience — four terms in the Senate. I like his platform, which is a fairly traditional Democratic platform.
PETER: Pretty centrist.
TOM: Very centrist. I would actually like to see him take a little bit more of a stand on certain issues. But politics has become such a tricky thing.
PETER: As a keen social observer, what do you think is the key to defeating Bush?
TOM: Have you heard that saying, “When women vote, Democrats win?” We all have to vote. That’s the key. I’m hoping and praying that it will be a surprise landslide for Kerry. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I have faith that Americans will realize that we need to make a change.
PETER: You’re very optimistic about the future of the country and the future of our political system.
TOM: Absolutely. America was founded on the principle of freedom of speech. When we began the war with Iraq, I made a statement that, although I was proud to be an American, I was embarrassed by the actions of our administration. I thought, “Who wants to listen to a fashion designer talking about politics?” But it was picked up by much of the European press.
PETER: That was a brave statement.
TOM: The Bush administration has squelched freedom of speech. If you disagree with them, you’re excommunicated. We live in a country of differences, and we should be able to voice those differences.
PETER: Do you have the same sense of shock that I do about how the President lied and misled the public regarding the weapons in Iraq?
TOM: What we have done is pretty shocking. And I’m troubled by the idea of creating a new position to monitor all the intelligence agencies. That job already exists — it’s the President’s job. Your staff briefs you and you make a decision. The fact that no one wants to take responsibility for the intelligence failures is unbelievable.
PETER: Listening to you speak about your political ideas is quite inspiring. Have you ever thought about entering politics yourself?
TOM: Yeah. But I hate to say it, because people are going to laugh when they read that Tom Ford thinks he might go into politics.
PETER: Well, why not?
TOM: I don’t know. We have the Terminator as governor, and we had an actor as president, so why shouldn’t we have a fashion designer as a senator? [laughs]
PETER: We already know you’re good at running things, based on your record at Gucci.
TOM: If one could just contribute, without having to compromise, it would be great. But I don’t think I would have the stomach for the maneuvering that is necessary in politics. I would probably be too honest, say what I really feel, and not play the game. And think of the scrutiny that politicians have to endure. There aren’t many strong or charismatic candidates today, because many people can’t withstand the scrutiny. The other day I smoked a joint, what am I gonna do?
PETER: That scrutiny is often used as a political neutralizer.
TOM: Absolutely. And this is a new phenomenon. Once upon a time we did not focus on a pres-ident’s private life. Kennedy’s indiscretions were not an issue. But Bill Clinton was a great president who was marred by something that had nothing to do with his ability to be president.
PETER: You have a big following among young people — who generally don’t vote. How would you address someone under thirty, who may not feel that voting makes any difference?
TOM: To my mind, young people should care, and they do care. When the youth of America gets together, amazing things happen. College campuses were once a hotbed of political activity. Students in the ’60s were responsible for great changes, politically and socially. The youth movement launched and defined what we’ve become since the ’60s. I would like to see that happen again.